Friday, July 22, 2016

Coulisses de Forêt

 Six friezes for a paper theatre, 1880-1920
Source: 50Watts

I have been rather busy of late, as the tidal wave of consequences from the Referendum has swept over and fundamentally altered my place of work, and so it's been hard to find time to think about landscape and art.  However, I've just looked back at some draft posts and come upon the material here, which I wrote in 2011 after reading Will Schofield's 50Watts blog, where he reproduced various sets of scenery, like the one above, from a Dutch Puppetry Museum database.  They are all in muted colours, like memories of childhood.  When we were growing up I wasn't that taken with the Pollock’s Toy Theatre my parents got us; more recently, however, my sons did play a little with a Czech magnetic theatre.  The novelty wore off quite quickly though.  In an essay on the toy theatre, Robert Louis Stevenson looked back on the pleasure he had experienced admiring and painting these scenes and figures.  But then what?  'You might as well set up a scene or two to look at, but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance.'

Another of my favourite blogs back in 2011, the now defunct Venetian Red, did an informative post on the history of toy theatres and their enthusiasts (you can read it here).  Writers and artists who remembered them with fondness included Goethe, Jack B. Yeats, Cocteau and Chesterton, who asked
“has not everyone noticed how sweet and startling any landscape looks when seen through an arch? This strong, square shape, this shutting off of everything else, is not only an assistance to beauty; it is the essential of beauty… This is especially true of toy theatre, that by reducing the scale of events it can introduce much larger events… Because it is small it could easily represent the Day of Judgement. Exactly in so far as it is limited, so far it could play easily with falling cities or with falling stars.”

Marcel Jambon, set design model for Verdi's Otello, 1895
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I wonder if there were painters who toyed with toy theatres while working up their compositional ideas, like set designers experimenting with their scale models?  Thomas Gainsborough, after all, was said to have 'built model landscapes in his studio, consisting of coal, clay or sand with pieces of mirror for lakes and sprigs of broccoli to represent trees, in order to help him construct his compositions.'  The set of Coulisses de Forêt below could have been used to design a hunting scene with framing trees and repoussoir stag, except, I suppose, that by the time it was printed in 1889, art had largely left behind these classical conventions.  The Toy Theatre blog says that the Épinal-based firm behind this example, Pellerin, produced scenes that were 'very distinctive in style and very French, but for all that rather second rate. The Pellerin sheets were like its other cut-out products, intended to be made, set up and looked at but not performed. There were no Toy Theatre plays as such, only tableaux.'

Coulisses de Forêt, 1889
Source: Geheugen van Nederland

It is a month later and I have just seen a toy theatre - the one used at the start of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.  As I mention in my most recent post, I visited the Bergmancentrer on Fårö and it is on display there. I have included a photograph below (sorry about the unavoidable reflection from the window opposite).  The sign above the stage means 'Not for Pleasure Alone'.  The film begins with running water and then cuts to this theatre, where a young boy's face is revealed as he pulls up the background landscape scenery.


Alison Hobbs said...

I love reading your blogposts; after reading the awful daily news, this blog becomes "a refuge from the goading urgency of contingent happenings", (as A N Whitehead once said about "the pursuit of mathematics").

Thank you, and I hope the wave of contingent happenings at your place of work will die down soon.

Plinius said...

Kind words - thank you. Perhaps not coincidental that I felt drawn this week to write about something that has been enjoyed as an escape from the big real world.

Plinius said...

Further to this, I saw this week in The Guardian that 'the world’s largest collection of paper peepshows, depicting events that include Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Moscow and Queen Victoria’s coronation, has been gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum ... Catherine Yvard, special collections curator at the National Art Library, part of the V&A, said it was thrilled to be the new custodian. “This collection is a real treasure trove,” she said. “Peeping into one of these tunnel books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space.” ... The oldest paper peepshow in the collection was made in Austria by HF Müller circa 1824-25, depicting an idyllic garden leading to a large country house.'

These objects are rather like toy theatres. They are not yet viewable online or in person so I am not sure how many of them depict gardens or landscapes.